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The Circular Economy: Re-Starting Meme Wars

“Almost got me with a weaponised meme.” – The Quantum Thief

Memes are information that is copied from person to person by imitation. They are replicators subject to heredity, variation and selection, and they compete for space in our minds and cultures, shaping human nature as they go. We humans are meme machines; selective imitators, who spend our lives copying memes.

Dr Susan Blackmore.

The last 30 years of debate around resource use and economic growth reveals fairly obvious fault lines between the stories we tell ourselves and share to answer the question ‘which way out for a linear economy?’

This question is entangled – as it must be – with complex debates around population, consumption, inequality, ecological limits, materials use, technology, energy supply and demand, finance and carbon dioxide emissions.

There’s probably a few more, but let’s make a start by looking at some characterisations of the debate, the underlying ideas and their tenacity. The meme wars are on! [1]

License CC Credit: Flickr user: stickerHelsinki

The first fault line, is between those who think that business as usual will resolve the resource questions at hand and those that do not. It will do so, according to Franz Radermacher and others, including Thomas Piketty, by impoverishing the middle classes as the inequality gap continues to increase low or no growth, stagnating wages and even a possible debt and deflationary cycle take hold to cut demand for products and services as discretionary spending falls. This hypothesis , sometimes called the ‘fortress economy’ is not of course a great outcome on the social and broader economic front but it is a fix for resources and perhaps carbon emissions. Worryingly, the system conditions to generate this outcome are already firmly in place. Once upon a time, some middle class radicals associated ‘doing with less’ as a form of voluntary temperance amongst consumers in the wealthy nations. Instead, in the ‘fortress economy’ scenario, it would become mandatory.

The meme is ‘this is how the world works, it’s inevitable, it’s tough, it’s about winners and losers. Where do I need to be to win?’

Stepping over that troubling fault line, there are two more to negotiate. The first is between those who assume that the mathematics behind economic growth is inexorable. Just pick a number, 1%, 2% or 3% per annum and treat it to compound growth for a few decades, reveal how many planets’ worth of production is required and the answer is always ‘too many’. Given that the relative decoupling of resource use from growth has not led to absolute decoupling all that remains – reasonably they allege –  is to accept economic contraction, especially in the West , which will allow more resources for the rest and a more frugal, but high quality existence all round.

Degrowth is one term for this contraction, and its meme is perhaps:  “The only way is local and in communities that are in harmony with nature”.

License CC - credit Flickr user: James Cridland
License CC – credit Flickr user: James Cridland

This is picked up by those seeking equality and social justice, a revival of local action, increasing self sufficiency, practical skills and grassroots democracy. It’s very much “We the People”, reinvented for the pioneers of a 21st century post-carbon economy. The probability that degrowth would take down the entire debt laden financial system is only one of the criticisms.

Not that this is necessarily an issue for the meme because it often assumes that the world must be rebuilt anyway. Another criticism is that politically it doesn’t garner votes anywhere. George Monbiot once noted : “Our problem is that no one ever rioted for austerity”. For all that, this meme has a vibrant and active constituency.

Across this line are those who say that increasingly resource efficiency will lead to both economic growth and decoupling. This is the mainstream eco-efficiency view (circa 1992 onwards) and relies on technological fixes and resource substitution, especially the idea of swapping goods for services, extending product life, better recycling and so on and so forth. It has entered the mainstream and is able to override the more awkward facts because it’s the main candidate for a progressive, optimistic meme. Change is possible, it says.

License CC - credit Flickr user: Sam Leighton
License CC – credit Flickr user: Sam Leighton


The circular economy? This can be mistaken for a version of this techno-utopian meme, as it is assuredly mainstream and technologically focused, or so it seems. In reality, it takes its place one faultline further on. It says that we need to go beyond mere resource efficiency, because the payoff from relying on efficiency is inadequate. A different worldview, a different “framework for thinking” should inform our economics. The Enlightenment 1, “mechanistic” basis employed thus far is simply too disconnected from how real world systems work. Unrealistic and unfit for purpose never stopped an embedded meme from reproducing of course. A full take down on the troubles of economics and its assumptions can be found in Dirk Helbing and Alan Kirman’s work or in Meme Wars. For now, lets just look at efficiency and its discontents.

Efficiency – doing more with less – tends to increase scale, standardization, lower costs and therefore prices. It uses these increases in productivity (especially labour productivity) to secure or maintain profits and it often reduces waste per unit. So what’s not to like? It is one sided. It assumes that spending released to increasingly productive workers and through lower prices will be spent on new products or services. These will, in turn have their own environmental and social impacts of course – but will at least soak up the additional unemployment, which often follows from labour productivity gains. It is also assumed that profits will be reinvested in the productive economy. That’s the technofix meme operating to say ‘all will be well – it’s a positive cycle around growth’ but increasingly this is no longer the case.

“The circular economy says that we need to go beyond mere resource efficiency, because the payoff from relying on efficiency is inadequate. A different worldview, a different “framework for thinking” should inform our economics.”

Resource efficiency is still overwhelmingly based on a throughput assumption, despite being moderated. In Braungart’s terms, it’s only “doing less harm”.  Unhappily the “doing less harm per unit of output” does not allow decoupling in the sum because of various rebound effects and rising overall consumption. It carries other downsides too. Since the 1980s the happy process whereby spending is released creating new employment has increasingly fallen away in the developed nations, since the returns to wages parted company with productivity at that time (revealing over production which was largely bridged by easy credit until 2008). The phenomenon of “jobless growth” has taken its place alongside stagnant or falling real wages. It is actually becoming a global phenomenon as this extract from the New Indian Times laments:

“In organised industries, the jobs have shifted from regular to contract work resulting in casualisation of labour. Manufacturing shed five million jobs, while services employed only 3.5 million workers during this period.

Forty percent of the graduating students from engineering colleges in the country run the risk of being unemployed. Others will take jobs well below their technical qualifications in a market where there are few jobs for India’s overflowing technical talent pool.

Between 2005 and 2010, only one million jobs were created for almost 60 million new entrants to the labour market.”

No malevolent presence is needed to create such an astonishing statistic – it’s the system. Efficiency as Peter Drucker wrote is “doing things right”, but effectiveness is doing the right thing. Effectiveness is required and it’s a system’s aware approach; a context matters approach; an inclusive approach. All of these things make up effectiveness.

The circular economy seeks to create and enhance effective flows by making them feedback rich and to maintain, rebuild and regenerate capital (natural, social and economic) by setting system conditions which will enable this “circularity”. Broadly, this means an endless transformation of materials (designing out waste and making resources more available), swapping the use of energy stocks (fossil fuels) for energy income (renewables) by stimulating markets to act rationally (based on full disclosure of costs), and by attending to the opportunity for communities to benefit not just from lowered costs, but from increased opportunities for creating income. It is no longer possible to divide the consumer against the producer, given that they are often the very same person.

Gunter Pauli, an entrepreneur and innovator with long experience in business and author of a circular economy guide called “the Blue Economy” states :

“Thus the first and foremost rule of the game that needs to be changed is the shift from ‘ever lower costs’ to ‘ever higher generation of value’ with what is locally available.”

Innovation and enterprise is crucial. From consumer to prosumer, one who is also a producer perhaps. It is as much about access to resources and since waste = food in a circular economy, there should be more of this to go around. This access will include credit for productive investment and a rational taxation system, which discourages the use of non renewables and encourages the use of renewables, of which the most salient and important by far is human potential. The active citizen is an important economic character. Active citizens are economically franchised. Disenfranchised citizens eventually reach for their pitchforks.

In this way there is the possibility of subsuming efficiency within an economy, which is enabled towards effectiveness, but it is not a “local is best” meme either. It is about large, medium and small, the whole economic body thriving, a vibrant system means vibrant at all scales. We know this because an economy is a complex adaptive system. An effective circular economy is one where diversity is celebrated, since we know now that this is a key to both creativity and resilience.

The thought leaders of the circular economy do share a systems perspective (William McDonough, Michael Braungart, Janine Benyus, Thomas Graedel, Paul Hawken, Gunter Pauli) and apply insights from living systems. It would be hard not to as circularity implies feedback and dynamic coherence. Everything that systems theory explores, after all, is based on relationships and their consequences.

License CC - credit Flickr user: Miquel Gonzalez Page
License CC – credit Flickr user: Miquel Gonzalez Page

In the meme “wars”, reasonable is never enough and assumptions about what is “obvious” should not be made. Here is an example:

Braungart’s famous “everything is food” analogy of the cherry tree is often misinterpreted. He uses a cherry tree in blossom to illustrate the idea that a surfeit of blossom is not a problem – it is not wasteful, because it is food. The tree is adorned with blossom, the route from an abundance of blossom to maintaining and reproducing a healthy tree is not a direct and closed loop (tree/soil/tree), but one where blossom is food for the whole system, via a myriad of animals, plants and fungi and out of which the tree receives nourishment (and is eventually replaced by the fruits of its activity). It’s also partly an open system, because it requires sunlight to operate, and energy surplus to make it all happen. Too often circularity is thought to be a pipe-flow analogy: the firm recovers its “stuff” and remakes it and again and again in perpetual flow. Nothing leaks. Designing waste out is not the same as stopping waste from leaking and it’s not the same as zero waste. Zero “waste” can become zero food! Tight feedback loops rarely happen (or work) in reality, rather an industrial ecosystem is in play. It is system enabled or disabled. We are back to effectiveness.

“Too often circularity is thought to be a pipe-flow analogy: the firm recovers its “stuff” and remakes it and again and again in perpetual flow.”

Circularity is wonderfully leaky. Leaks can be turned into nutrients – sources of building income and prosperity. In contrast, a “tight” non-leaky flow speaks of control and exclusivity and eventually perhaps the extension of a rentier capitalism where access to material assets is “toll-boothed.” Materials, products and services might join real estate and intellectual property as “scarce”. In contrast the energy within the meme around circularity is abundance and low cost access, by design or intention.

The original notion of economic growth is crude and predicated on throughput. Better measures of prosperity will eventually prevail but even in conventional terms, the transformation of waste into food and the designing out of waste releases a wealth of opportunities and resources, and what if they are used in a way which is part of a restorative cycle? We won’t swap fossil fuels for renewables, barrel for barrel, Gw for Gw. It will depend on better, integrated systems for mobility, better utilization of buildings and business models, which reveal the benefits of access over ownership, of the cascading of materials and of economies of scope not scale. These different elements working together will systemically work to lower the threshold for renewables. The restoration of natural and social capital will also increase outputs compared against the present day’s phenomenal underuse of human potential and degraded soils, fisheries and forests.

Perhaps this narrative helps answer a challenge offered by David Orr years ago that we know what we are against, but not what we are for.

Let the meme wars continue, invigorated!


1. I am using the  ‘meme as a prism for understanding certain aspects of contemporary culture without embracing the whole set of implications and meanings ascribed to it over the years.’ Limor Shifman http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/store/10.1111/jcc4.12013/asset/jcc412013.pdf;jsessionid=878A8AFA4775DD6A8C385EA7E8EEB596.f04t02?v=1&t=i7lklsrd&s=c2bbfcb883c68d44e38fdb47e68fbcd478697301

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Ken Webster

Ken Webster

Ken Webster is Head of Innovation at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and he is a major contributor to the development and communication of ideas in this field.


  1. April 23, 2015 at 1:04 pm — Reply

    Dear Ken,

    thank you for the insights on ‘meme wars’. I wanted to pick up on the comment “The only way is local and in communities that are in harmony with nature”. We’re supporting entrepreneurs and start-ups to grow and get to scale and often the issue is scale itself. Start-ups can be very innovative and make use of resources efficiently or come up with products / services that use resources more efficiently but what they often lack is scalability (and with it the financial attractiveness that makes them investable).

    We’ve been to a BITC event at Lloyds Bank to figure out what role the Finance Industry will play in the Circular Economy. There was a clear sense that for big finance to come on board the Circular Economy, the issues addressed need to be “big enough” (of scale) and must be de-risked as much as possible. This is almost in direct contradiction to where community-based start-ups come from. They are solving issues on the ground within a specific ‘community’ but how can can they reach scale, moving beyond their initial community – we think there is a clear case for larger corporates to partner with startups either via resource-sharing, onboarding them to become part of a (circular) supply chain, direct investment or otherwise.

    “Big ships change course slowly, but when they do, they make a lot of water” – can community (and issue/ mission driven) start-ups help achieve larger corporates through collaboration with them?


  2. Kaslo
    April 24, 2015 at 8:07 pm — Reply

    Appreciate your article on the circular economy, but why build it around meme theory–something that’s been questioned and/or discredited by multiple biologists and social psychologists…? I think author/psychiatrist Dr. Iain McGilchrist (The Master and his Emissary) said it best when he wrote: “…. ideas do spread by contagion and no doubt in one sense in competition with one another”. BUT… “Memes if they existed would be replicating, unlike genes, within a mind: a mind whose constant interaction with what ever comes to it leaves nothing unchanged or unconnected with something else. We are imitators, not copying machines. Human imitation is not slavish. It is not a mechanical process, dead, perfect, finished, but one that introduces variety and uniqueness to the ‘copy’, which above all remains alive, since it becomes instantiated in the context of a different, unique human individual. Imitation is imaginatively entering into the world of the one that is imitated.” Indeed, as social psychologist Jonathan Haidt says: “The human mind is a story processor, not a logic processor.” The puzzling thing about Dawkins and his theories is that on one hand, he apparently denies true free will of individuals, being a mechanist and determinist, and yet somehow thinks “machines” can evolve and change (on their own). We are deeply habitual creatures, but that doesn’t mean we are “machines.” The brain is neuroplastic, and gene expression can be influenced by environmental factors (epigenetics). Physics is stuck on string theory, and many physicists (best example Lee Smolin) are saying deterministic philosophies derived from conventional physics (influencing biology) have overly influenced how we view human agency, and whether or not humans can “exert control over climate change, our economic system and our technology.” (Wikipedia) We CAN, but I think not as long as we use machine metaphors to explain who we are…

    • Ken Webster
      May 1, 2015 at 10:07 pm — Reply

      I am aware that the science behind memes is far from bulletproof, the notion is helpful in highlighting worldviews and their propagation mechanisms, which is the main focus for the article.

      Thanks for the heads up and the systems perspective.

  3. Kaslo
    April 25, 2015 at 7:36 pm — Reply

    RE: Memes; see biologist Steven Rose’s blog on the Guardian: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/may/15/intuition-pumps-tools-dennett-review

  4. April 30, 2015 at 7:57 am — Reply

    Dear Ken,
    I’m reading Thomas Piketty “Capital in the 21st Century”, not yet finished, and I think that what is key at stage is the very definition of CAPITAL. Bill McDonough told me once that we live in a currency economy not a capitalist system, because we do exchange goods most of time at the expenses of resource availability. I think that commerce is neither good or bad per se – The Ecology of Commerce – but in a Circular Economy, Commerce should undeniably be redefined to boost abundance and equity across the globe, and this is challenging. Circular metrics are on the go – I’m aware of Granta’s – and I’m anxious to see the Business Profit indicator, because decoupling commerce from resource depletion needs new and better indicators. Our system is over-symplistic, but we have indicators like for instance Exergy that might help when utilized properly. Best, Ignasi

    • Ken Webster
      April 30, 2015 at 11:10 am — Reply

      I don’t quite understand your comment about it being a currency economy, perhaps you can elaborate?

      The aspiration for a circular economy is that with rebuilt capital (natural and social) and the designing out of the idea of waste there is much to play for. It also requires that shift to renewables as soon as practicable and tax shifting to place the emphasis on non-renewables rather than renewables like workers/labour. This should contribute to addressing Piketty’s concerns although he has other ideas about how we go about ‘circulating’ wealth.

      I don’t believe that indicators are always as important as imagined. Yes there is a place for them but doing good business and harnessing new opportunities in uncertain times can depend more on insight, entrepreneurship, changing technologies and system conditions, including transparent pricing. Unhappily for some, waiting to prove a business case beyond doubt was not how earlier revolutions took place.

      The circular economy for me represents a sense of direction, an evolving understanding of possibility, at all scales, reducing costs and making effective use of resources , but also adding value at all scales- by access to resources which were hitherto unavailable (cascading in the biocycle for example or access to space or shared resources, or materials ‘banks’). If it is not able to increase employment and income and real opportunity, if all the benefits are captured elsewhere then the circular economy will only have been a material and energy resources success.

  5. April 30, 2015 at 4:19 pm — Reply

    Dear Ken,
    I am afraid there will be examples of rioting for austerity soon, just look at California as it’s running out of water and neighbors are becoming snitches in an effort to enforce compliance with desperate conservation rules.

    I don’t think we should dismiss simple life as not worth pursuing, because for some it means dressing up in a sack and living in an eco-village, abandoning advanced civilization. I think it is very important to come up with a simple, advanced and sustainable way of living. For me that means being able to drive an electric car, ride on the super-high-speed train or fly in a commercial “Solar Impulse” supersonic jet, for instance, not giving up on modern transportation.

    In other words, to define that “right thing” or good life for all. That includes the very difficult task to define and accept how much is enough for all human beings to live a good life (all basic needs satisfied, meaningful work guaranteed, advanced technology, etc.) rather than find the best economic model for decoupling growth from resource consumption.

    When it comes to imitation, what we need to imitate is the speed of nature, which is very low. We need to slow down and not be afraid of it. The circular economy, which I very much support, can do a great job at transforming waste into food, but there are limits to the rate of absorption in nature of too many nutrients, even if they are good. I think it is not realistic to promise unlimited abundance, based on the notion that it does not matter how much waste we create or how much stuff we produce, as long as we find ways to circulate them… I still think we need to reduce our aggregate demand of stuff. How about the steady-state economy, as it reminds us that there is no escape from entropy, the measure of inexorable matter and energy degradation? Cradle-to-cradle, the basis of the circular economy, seems rather poetic, by not addressing the bio-physical limits of our planet.

    Thank you for re-starting the meme wars, it is not only fun to participate in the verbal battle, but essential to finding our way out of the current system that is bad for 99% of people and bad for the only plant that can sustain us.

  6. Ken Webster
    May 1, 2015 at 10:37 pm — Reply

    This notion of ‘unlimited’ seems to be the heart of the problem. For sure its possible to overload or disturb a system – toxicity is for example a material in the wrong place, or too much of it, even in the ‘right’ place. Even benign materials need processing as you suggest and there can be issues around all this – but we are not talking unlimited. We are talking being at home in the modern world; we are talking decoupling as a direction of travel; we are talking an economy by intention which is designing out the idea of waste. Many flows will become slower as we pay more attention to the maintenance of capital and find added value in systems which use extended product life, or use assets more intensely but what I wish to dispel is the idea that we are somehow having to atone for our activities and that would be somehow better; of seeing a big threat as over population (by which is often meant “people over there”). Away with guilt and blame like that. Its more a practical question of great design and ‘fitting the system’ creatively and, yes, perhaps growing vegetables on fossil (ground) water in California is not a great plan. What can’t be sustained won’t be. You can, I learnt last week, grow a lot of things in Maine! (since they used to back in the day) You can have meat to eat too – but using CAFOS is dumb and the price has to reflect the full costs etc etc.

    There is a world of opportunity if we can get the systems thinking right, and whether it might be steady state, low growth, some growth it is going to be a measure of well being. A linear economy and its designed-at-the-same-time dumb measure of progress will have to give way: not to a circular economy and the same dumb measure of progress but a circular economy and a nuanced, better, honest measure.
    So, lets vote for the upcycle, for reinventing progress. That takes people and business and governance with us.
    Best wishes

  7. Silvia Leahu-Aluas
    May 28, 2015 at 12:21 pm — Reply

    Count me in the revolution for good, which by the way we need to get it done fast. If it is correct that we have about 20 years to change (as both scientists and accountants agree) in order to keep global temperature increase within 2°C before all bets are off for an advanced human civilization, then we need to win today. Please encourage me, my children and all people that it is happening, because I do not see the revolution on track.

    I very much agree with you that indicators are least important and that previous revolutions, including the industrial one that laid the foundation to the modern world with all its great achievements and with all the problems, did not happen because somebody came up with metrics to follow. In fact, if there were so many finance people like today constantly throwing around numbers for others to achieve, the industrial revolution would be dead. It happened because of dreamers, tinkerers, adventurers, curious and courageous people, scientists, engineers, workers, peasants, business people wanting to build what until then was impossible and generate a sense of wonder towards our ability to think and make extraordinary things. That’s what I felt watching at the Musée des Arts et Métiers (even its name sounds better than Museum of Technology) in Paris the few seconds movie of a failed flight on a bicycle with wings in the early 1900s. The man “flying” it was not thinking about the balance sheet of a commercial airline company, he was dreaming to fly. Because of his and many others dreams and talent, today’s commercial aviation exists. We need more imagination and courage than accounting for the circular economy revolution to succeed.

    Besides, it is easy to invent numbers to sell whatever you are selling. So, the transition to the good, circular economy and good life for all will happen rather because we understand we need to change, based on the best scientific knowledge we have and on our ethical values. Of course, we will need numbers to measure if we achieve a new system of work and life, but they are secondary to a change of mindset and values. I agree once more with you that if it does not benefit all people, alive today and in the future, then circular economy will be another nice fad for consultants to talk about, before they move on to the next.

    I am following closely the work of the Club of Rome on the circular economy and its social impact. Will you incorporate more of the social impact in your work at the Foundation? Is there a particular reason why you do not tie the circular economy to sustainability?

  8. December 14, 2016 at 4:39 am — Reply

    If ‘circular economy’ involves/requires continued illegitimate and coercive leadership/governance, then it won’t work.

    With regard to technology and general complexity, including social, don’t forget the ‘iron law of oligarchy’ while you’re thinkingdif about that:

    “…all forms of organization, regardless of how democratic they may be at the start, will eventually and inevitably develop oligarchic tendencies, thus making true democracy practically and theoretically impossible, especially in large groups and complex organizations. The relative structural fluidity in a small-scale democracy succumbs to ‘social viscosity’ in a large-scale organization. [Accordingly] …democracy and large-scale organization are incompatible…” — Wikipedia

  9. ignasi
    December 15, 2016 at 10:53 am — Reply

    As a practitioner of C2C for almost 10y now, I agree that C2C is poetic, but it’s fundamentals and 3 major principles are 100% inspired by nature. As a biologist I agree that the pace of Nature is not the same as humans, hence why our regenerative pace has to be human pace too rather than nature pace, no time for that. The exponential impact of a sound C2CCE strategy has to be systematic and systemic, and social impact is key, of course. I think though that we have a relations challenge and not only a resource problem, that’s why commerce and its social impact turns so crucial in my opinion. Carbon is not the enemy, and humans we should not be the enemy either…

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